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“D’ye want to see what I have in me bag here?” asked the tinker.

Frightened, I shook my head. “Of course you do,” he grinned, opening the sack.

I shall never forget my first experience of hedgehog husbandry. Nine years old, a solitary child out foraging in the woods, I met a tall, thin man in a leather cap and an ex-Army greatcoat, a hessian sack gripped tight in his left hand while he carefully combed the undergrowth with his right. He had wild, reddish brown hair and even wilder whiskers, so I knew him right away for one of those folk my parents referred to as “tinkers” – and, like me, he was clearly searching for something. It was a weekday, the woods were deserted, the nearby farm road quiet – and he was probably glad of that, for nobody of his tribe ever had much to be grateful for in their dealings with housebound folk. Still, seeing me coming, and sensing an opportunity for some fun, he immediately bade me good morning.

I didn’t want to speak, but I knew I had to be polite – and of course, I was dying to know what was in the sack. He studied my face, his expression good-humoured, his eyes bright. “D’ye want to see what I have in me bag here?” he asked, his smile as much a challenge as a show of innocence.

I shook my head. He laughed. “Of course you do,” he said, hoisting the sack and opening it slightly. “Come on. They won’t bite you.” I wanted to hurry away, but I couldn’t. Part of me was afraid to look because I was certain, now, that something was alive in there. But my curiosity was larger than my fear. Besides, I was reluctant to offend the man – so I walked slowly over to where he stood, and looked into the sack.

The “bag” contained four hedgehogs, the plump sand-and-silver bodies newly unfurled and treading air in the hoisted sack like novice acrobats. I was confused, because I did not understand what use a grown man might have for such a thing. Until I met that tinker, I had imagined that hedgehogs were invincible to all but the cleverest and most persistent foxes (and badgers, because badgers, I knew, could eat anything). So at that moment, when I realised what was happening, I felt my eyes brim with tears and I wanted to punch the tinker, hard, then grab his sack and run for it, scattering the newly liberated hedgehogs in my trail. Instead, I just stared. Afterwards, I learned from a neighbour how hedgehogs were cooked, the live balls of spine and flesh encased in clay and baked so that, when the casing was cracked open, the spines came away cleanly, leaving the cooked meat intact.

I don’t know if hungry people still comb the woods and headlands for such wild fodder, but if they do, the pickings are probably slim, for nowadays the common hedgehog is frighteningly scarce. In a report for the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, David Wembridge estimates that, while “hedgehogs were once abundant throughout Britain, with an estimated population of perhaps 30 million in the 1950s”, that number has now fallen to around one million, and the decline is set to continue for all the usual reasons: irresponsible pesticide use, destruction of hedgerows and permanent pasture and, perhaps most significantly, loss and fragmentation of habitat caused by new roads, housing and other developments.

Now, looking back, I feel ashamed of how I judged that man in the hungry Sixties. He didn’t eat all the hedgehogs, just took a few, when he had no other recourse. The men who do the real damage, the respected agribusiness and development entrepreneurs, probably dine on truffles and Beluga caviar.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia
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Holocaust memoir Maybe Esther is a mesmerising work of reconstruction and reflection

Katja Petrowskaja turns a venerable literature of commemorative, respectful wartime suffering on its head.

At the start of this mesmerising work of reconstruction and reflection, Katja Petrowskaja remarks that as a child she thought a family tree was something like a Christmas tree. A rooted and living thing, with relatives arrayed along its branches like ornaments, some fragile, some ugly. Then she tells us that a Christmas tree was the only family tree she ever knew growing up in Kiev, as the descendant of Polish Russian and Austrian Jews – teachers, tailors, farmers, plus a revolutionary or two – most of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. This bait and switch opener is typical of Petrowskaja’s style, as she turns a venerable literature of wartime suffering (commemorative, respectful) on its head, and then gives it back to us anew.

You might think there’s little more to add to the multitude of first-hand accounts of concentration camps and death marches, of pits teaming with bloodied naked bodies, of mass gassings and miraculous survivals  – especially by someone too young to remember any of it. But freed of the duty to bear witness, second-generation writers can come at the Holocaust askance, daring to question both the historical facts as well as the collective amnesia that sought to bury them. Think of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947, or Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL – intensely personal books that offer not just a “history from below” (an unearthing), but a kind of history from the imaginative hereafter, spurred not by memories or statistics, but by latter-day hauntings. As Petrowskaja puts it: “History begins when there are no more people to ask.”

Petrowskaja was born in Kiev in 1970 but has spent much of her adult life in Berlin; where her brother fell in love with Hebrew, she gave herself up to “the language of the enemy”. She writes in High German, expertly translated by Shelley Frisch into sentences that swoop and soar. It is writing that dazzles – deeply thoughtful and with insights that flash like sharp implements.

Petrowskaja begins with those who survived. Her aunt Lida, who encrypted the family’s Jewish recipes, because she “wanted nothing to do with the whole pain of saying ‘Jew’ and thinking of graves right away and who, because she was still alive, could not be a Jew”. She disguised her inheritance within a “Ukrainian cooking repertoire”. Petrowskaja’s grandfather Vassily  reappeared in Kiev 40 years after the war ended, refusing to speak, not least about the string of work camps he’d endured or death marches he’d survived. Instead he sat indoors for a whole year smiling at his rediscovered relatives before dying. Her grandmother Rosa took to writing her memoirs incessantly, in pencilled scrawl on loose white sheaves. Yet since she wrote several pages on the same sheet, one line overwriting the next, “like waves of sand on the beach”, her scratchings were unintelligible.

It is silences like these – the disappeared years and unspeakable (literally) experiences – that Petrowskaja excels at teasing back into life. Google is her friend; the archives at Mauthausen and Yad Vashem spill secrets; and journeys to Warsaw and Linz are undertaken with nothing but 19th-century maps and yellowing diary fragments for guides.

On one side of her family are generations of teachers of deaf-mutes. Petrowskaja hunts for the school her great-grandfather founded in Warsaw, seized after sign language (like all private communication) was banned by the Nazis. She is searching for records of death, but instead, a series of hidden clues lead to unexpected life: it turns out her grandfather Ozjel Krzewin had children from a prior marriage, one of whose descendants, now in her eighties, is alive and well in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Her paternal line yields a grandmother with no name, the titular “maybe Esther”, casually shot on the streets of Kiev by a German officer from whom she’d politely asked directions, and an assassin great-uncle named Judas Stern, executed for shooting a German official in Prague in 1932. Briefly, Stern was infamous, but Petrowskaja suspects he was mentally unbalanced, most likely set up, certainly exploited. “When are you sending me into the world of unreconstructed matter?” Stern is recorded as having asked the prosecutor at his trial.

Petrowskaja herself is happiest in the world of unreconstructed matter – as opposed to when her personal history collides with the public record – her mind ceaselessly turning over the absence of facts, or asking questions whose answers can never be known. “There was nothing more to show – only to tell,” she writes, after describing how the Soviets pumped loam and sand and clay into the ravine of Babi Yar, where, over two days in September 1941, the Germans shot dead Kiev’s 33,771 Jews.

When she imagines the shooting of “Maybe Esther”, she says:

I observed this scene like God out of the window of the building across the street. Maybe that’s how people write novels. Or fairy tales. I sit up there and see everything! Sometimes I screw up my courage, draw near, and stand behind the officer’s back to listen in on the conversation. Why are they standing with their backs to me? I go around them and see nothing but their backs.

The image is perfect. For the impetus behind Maybe Esther itself arose when the past itself turned its back on the author and refused to offer up its truths. 

Marina Benjamin’s books include “Last Days in Babylon” (Bloomsbury)

Maybe Esther
Katja Petrowskaja
4th Estate, 272pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia
Photo: Getty
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In the battle for a deeply divided Britain, universities are now the front line

History suggests that when the educated masses feel their future has been stolen, revolutions happen.


The Prime Minister has announced a year-long review into university funding. This followed Damian Hinds, in his first big outing as Education Secretary, saying that some courses may soon cost more than others.

From the noise around the issue, it seems, in the favoured phrase of indecisive politicians playing for time, that every option is on the table. A small cut in tuition fees; a big cut; a hypothecated tax; or a change in the interest rate paid on student debts or the level at which repayments begin. And that’s just the financing. The review will also consider types of degrees, their length, and the role of technology in delivering them.

In her speech, Theresa May did nod to the fact that, for some young people, university is not the best option. Vocational training or going straight into a job might be better. But the force of her argument, and the focus of the review, is how to make university more affordable.

It follows Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, which helped prove that if you want to activate a particular group of voters, addressing a major resentment is usually an effective way to go. Of course, the Labour leader does also believe in the principle of free education.

Corbyn’s policy and Hinds’s review – and to a lesser extent, May’s speech – are predicated on one of the great unspoken assumptions of postwar Britain, which is that sending ever more pupils to university is a noble social goal. I don’t for the purposes of this column take a view on whether that is correct. I do think it necessary to understand the origins and consequences of this pedagogical evolution.

In his seminal collection of 1928, Sceptical Essays, my hero, Bertrand Russell, wrote: “The interest of the state in education is very recent. It did not exist in antiquity or the Middle Ages.” As the state has become more involved in education, not least through taxes, so the principle function of the academy has mutated – from culture to economics.

In The Idea of a University (1854), Cardinal John Henry Newman said higher education was “a place of concourse, whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. You cannot have the best of every kind everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it.” The ancient aim of university was mainly to transmit knowledge from one generation to another. Now, it is to increase returns in a competitive job market.

Over lunch last Friday, I discussed this with Jo Johnson, easily one of the most impressive brains in Conservative ranks and, until January, universities minister. He endorsed the looser grip a moneyed few now have on the sector. Between the Robbins Report of 1963 and the Dearing Report of 1997 – which both made recommendations for higher education – the number of students at university went from 200,000 to 1.6 million. It is now higher still.

We are living with the consequences. Of the two “masses” that reshaped postwar Britain, mass immigration gets the headlines, partly because we can see it. Mass higher education is less noted. But the key dividing line in British politics now is not left-right, open-closed, or rural-urban. It is graduate vs non-graduate. And the rapid decline in the status of non-graduate jobs explains much of our current climate.

With Brexit – as with Donald Trump in the US – the biggest predictor of voting behaviour was level of education. Look at the electoral map: the Remain vote and the Labour vote is now basically London plus the university towns. In the last election, even Canterbury – Canterbury! – voted Labour.

And why should graduates vote left, aside from their youth? The idea that Brexit or Trump voters are stupid is patronising rubbish. Graduates are more likely to have acquired the confidence and connections to negotiate a hyper-competitive global economy; be more comfortable with mobility, often having left their roots; and have mixed with people from various backgrounds, gaining a socially liberal disposition. Viewed in this light, Momentum can be seen as a graduate-populist phenomenon. Populism is the practice of pitting the people against the elites, presuming the former have a single will, and inculcating a sense of betrayal among them. Momentum helps to express the betrayal felt by a generation of debt-laden graduates whose housing and job prospects are worse than their parents’.

History suggests that when the educated masses feel their future has been stolen, revolutions happen. In Britain, the silent evolution of our university sector, motivated by a noble egalitarianism, has perhaps unleashed something we are only just beginning to comprehend. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia
Jean-Luc Manaud/Gamma Radio
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Why educating girls is the best cure for the world’s problems

Female education can reduce population pressures, boost economic growth, curb infant mortality and improve child nutrition.

The southern fringe of the Sahara seems an odd place for a baby boom. This expanse of West Africa is just as parched and arid as you might think; its people endure perennial food shortages, sometimes escalating into famines. Yet the countries of the Sahel, as the region is known, have the fastest-growing populations in the world. Today, 74 million people live in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. By 2050, that is projected to nearly treble to 198 million.

Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world, with each woman giving birth an average of 7.6 times. The problem, of course, is not a booming population in itself, but the speed of growth. Niger’s population doubles every 20 years, meaning that the economy must also double in size equally fast, just to stop the country’s citizens from becoming even poorer per capita.

At first, I puzzled over why the Sahelian nations should be coping with population pressures on a unique scale – and then I discovered a big part of the explanation.

A third of Niger’s girls miss out on primary school; 90 per cent do not complete secondary education. The tragic consequence is that most women in Niger can neither read nor write: three-quarters of the female population aged between 15 and 24 are illiterate. Think of the waste and injustice represented by those baleful figures. Imagine the squandered talent and how the development of a nation is being held back.

And consider the trouble that humanity is storing up for the future, contained in the bleak fact that 131 million girls across the world are being deprived of an education. In some places there are not enough schools or teachers; in others, poverty and discrimination combine to keep girls out of the classroom.

That is why I have made the cause of female education a central priority of British foreign policy. My aim is to persuade every government to deliver a minimum of 12 years of quality schooling for every girl.

That goal is not only profoundly right in itself – it is also a metaphorical Swiss Army knife to fix a multitude of problems. If you want to reduce population pressures, boost economic growth, curb infant mortality and improve child nutrition, then one of the best ways is to ensure that all the girls in your country go to school.

The rapid growth in Niger’s population is partly explained by the fact that three-quarters of women are married before they reach adulthood. And child marriage is far more common if girls are denied an education.

None of this is assertion or conjecture: the hard facts tell the story. Women in sub-Saharan Africa who never attend school give birth an average of 6.7 times; for those with secondary education, the figure falls to 3.9.

A United Nations study found that if all girls went to secondary school, then the prevalence of child marriage would fall by two-thirds. Infant mortality would be cut in half – saving three million lives every year – and 12 million children would not have their growth stunted by malnutrition.

As for reducing poverty, each extra year of schooling raises a woman’s future wages by 12 per cent.

Governments must now get on with the job and do what is necessary. Penny Mordaunt’s Department for International Development (DfID) is doing great work in this field. At the beginning of February, it promised £225m for the Global Partnership for Education over three years, an increase of nearly 50 per cent on Britain’s previous contributions.

At the UK-France summit in January, DfID announced an extra £50m of British aid specifically for the Sahel, focused on a variety of needs including family planning. On this occasion, the Prime Minister and Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, jointly designated 2018 as the Global Year of Learning.

Another opportunity for action will come in April, when Britain welcomes the leaders of the 52 other Commonwealth countries to London for one of the biggest summits in our history. I will ensure that female education is high on the agenda as we lobby governments for more investment in schools. 

But mere attendance in the classroom is not an end in itself: the aim must be to ensure that girls actually learn when they get there and master the key foundational skills of literacy and numeracy.

The time has come for all governments to do more. If we can ensure that every girl benefits from 12 years of quality education, this would be the single most powerful spur to development and progress. So let us pull together and do what we must. Justice demands no less. 

Boris Johnson is the Foreign Secretary and Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia
Photo: Getty
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When They Call You a Terrorist: the extraordinary memoir by a Black Lives Matter founder

Patrisse Khan-Cullors' harrowing and yet uplifting work demonstrates that collective organising is the only thing that has truly changed the world for the better, and the only thing that ever will

Tanisha Anderson. Miriam Carey. Sandra Bland, Shelly Hilliard, Shelly Frey. Before discussing When They Call You a Terrorist – the extraordinary memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement – it feels important to list these names. They are some of the many women killed at the hands of American law enforcement officers, but whose names have too rarely frequented national headlines – the final indignity of those who die due to the recklessness and ruthlessness of the state, to be wilfully ignored by history.

However, thanks to the outstanding efforts of Khan-Cullors and her peers, their lives will not be forgotten anytime soon. The author, along with fellow activists Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, has created a platform for protest which even the president of the United States could not ignore.

It must be stated at this point that this platform, most visible online through the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, was  born from patient and painstaking grassroots work. Khan-Cullors’s name has been conspicuously absent from much of the discourse about the movement – and it is striking that she and her co-writer, Asha Bandele, do not once mention DeRay McKesson, the man  many keen Twitter users would most readily associate with the movement.

The overshadowing of women’s work by men is nothing new in the history of political action. Yet it feels particularly jarring here since a continual criticism of Black Lives Matter is that it is not clear what the protesters ultimately want; were Khan-Cullors handed the microphone more often, many would quickly see that she and her peers have a carefully-considered vision for societal improvement.

One of the most striking things about this book is that by the time Black Lives Matter is first discussed at length, we are already halfway through the text. The effect is that the reader then sees Khan-Cullors’s activism as a logical response to the policies, most notably the prison-industrial complex, that have hounded black communities for much of her early life.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors. Photo: Getty

Her brother was assaulted by the local police department, enduring acts that would later widely be described as torture; indeed, Khan-Cullors draws a compelling parallel between his treatment and that of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the US army in Abu Ghraib. Elsewhere, Khan-Cullors tells us the story of Gabriel Brignac, her biological father, who spent much of his life in and out of jail for drug possession before dying of a heart attack aged 50. In many ways, Brignac is the book’s most tragic figure: a warm and generous soul who would have had a far greater chance of happiness in a more compassionate society, or perhaps merely one where he had been born white.

There are many devastating scenes in this book, but maybe the most horrifying is when Khan-Cullors is invited home by  her best friend, over on the side of town where most of the affluent white people live. During the meal, Khan-Cullors realises that her best friend’s father – by her account a kind, gentle man – is the slumlord responsible for the dilapidated home in which she and her family live, and which has not had a working refrigerator for a year.

Galvanised by these events and the deaths of black people under police supervision,  Khan-Cullors co-founds Black Lives Matter. The movement’s efforts are often greeted with hostility and suspicion at best, and intimidation and violence at worst. Indeed, the book’s title refers to a petition presented to the White House, which submitted that Khan-Cullors and her fellow protesters were terrorists – an accusation, she notes, which has been made throughout history of black people seeking equal rights. The book does not spare the reader with a cathartic conclusion but ends with the election of Donald Trump, a grim indictment of those who were not vigilant or politically active enough to prevent his ascent.

Meanwhile, Khan-Cullors is careful to hold herself to account, concerned that she was too naive to see Trump coming and worried that she did not give trans women of colour enough of a platform at the early Black Lives Matter protests. This humility, alongside her exceptional commitment to social justice, provides the greatest cause for optimism in this harrowing and yet uplifting account: her compelling belief is that collective organising is the only thing that has truly changed the world for the better, and the only thing that ever will. 

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician

When They Call You a Terrorist
Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Canongate, 272pp, £16.99

Musa Okwonga is a Berlin-based poet, journalist and musician.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia
Iain McNicol. Photo: Getty
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Iain McNicol steps down as Labour party general secretary in sign of Jeremy Corbyn's strength

The departure had been expected, but the timing was a surprise. 

They are the masters now? Iain McNicol has resigned his post as Labour’s general secretary, clearing the way for a pukka Corbynite to take the role.

The writing had been on the wall for some time. Following Labour’s unexpected election advance, Labour party headquarters, McNicol and other senior officials faced heavy criticism, particularly in the leftwing blog Skwawkbox, for fighting an overly defensive campaign that cost the party seats. Skwawkbox is known to be both well-read and frequently briefed to by the leader’s office.

Also striking is the leader's office growing fondness for Friday night announcements: the leader's office quite likes to make its big moves quickly and unexpectedly on Friday nights after what they believe to have been a successful and effective refresh of the party's frontbench on 12 January.

Who will replace him? Although there is a comfortable “left” majority on the NEC that isn’t quite the same thing as a Corbynite one, and the internal politics of the trade union movement could yet complicate who the eventual general secretary is.

Jennie Formby and Andrew Murray, both Unite officials, are widely tipped for the post. Murray in particular is credited with helping to run the show during the general election campaign of 2017.

However, Unite are already well-represented on the party’s national executive committee and NEC officers group, not only through their direct representatives but because Diana Holland, the party’s treasurer, is a member of Unite. Labour’s other major unions may be reluctant to hand the post to Unite and it is arguably Unison’s “turn” (McNicol was linked to the GMB, while his predecessor, Ray Collins, was a member of Unite). 

But Unite’s stock is high having pulled out the stops financially during the election campaign so the chances of a Unite official getting the post are higher than they otherwise would be, but I would also keep an eye on the likes of Samuel Tarry, the TSSA’s political officer with impeccable Corbynite credentials who helped run the 2016 leadership campaign.

I also wouldn’t rule out entirely the possibility that Corbyn will still end up getting his second-choice candidate. Don’t forget that McNicol wasn’t Ed Miliband’s preferred candidate in 2011. The important difference of course is that Miliband was in a very weak position in 2011 and Corbyn is in a very strong one in 2018. But while I would be surprised, it is still possible that the big trade unions will effectively bypass the leader’s office as far as choosing the next general secretary goes.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.
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This is where science is at on the whole “video games cause violence” thing

Is Donald Trump (up, up, down, down, left) right?

President Trump is “hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts”. Like his tan, hair, and attitude to women, perhaps Trump’s ears are stuck in the 1990s, when the suggestion that video games cause violence first became popular in the press. Since then, this theory has popped up again and again after each newsworthy American mass shooting (there are loads of ostensibly non-newsworthy American mass shootings literally all the time).

As such, it’s no real surprise that Trump is touting this line a week after the deadliest high-school shooting in American history. But just how scientifically sound is the thesis that video games cause violent outbursts?

“Basically, there’s no scientific evidence to back the contention by President Trump that violent movies or video games play any role in societal violence, including mass shootings,” says Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University who has studied the link between video games and violence for almost 15 years.

Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University and part of the International Society for Research on Aggression, has a different perspective. “The issue is more complex than the President’s statement or than the opposing statements by video game industry supporters,” he tells me over email.

It’s a contentious issue, and it’s easy to see why it’s a popular topic in the media. In recent years, it has become apparent that online gaming culture can lead to misogyny which in turn can lead gamers to threaten and intimidate women (see: Gamergate). Yet Trump isn’t concerned about this (a lot of these same gamers, after all, were his supporters) and is instead advancing the more simplistic argument that anyone who plays Grand Theft Auto is destined to become a violent criminal in real life.

“The evidence just isn’t there,” says Ferguson over email, noting that the consumption of violent video games appears to be associated with a reduction in violent crime (rates of which have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years). In the scientific community, he says, “the idea that violent media contributes to societal violence is definitely a minority view.

“In recent surveys, only about 10-15 per cent of scholars or clinicians seem to endorse this view and they tend to be older and harbour more negative attitudes toward kids in general.”

The idea video games create school shooters can certainly be shaped by other biases, as in the president's case the claim allows him to find a scapegoat and solution for violence without taking on the NRA. Yet Ferguson does note that minor acts of aggression (he gives the example of giving hot sauce to someone who doesn’t like spicy food) and their links to gaming are up for debate in the scientific community. A 2017 meta-analysis by the American Psychological Association found playing violent games was a “risk factor” for increased aggression (although this could not, in turn, be linked to actual criminal behaviour).

Anderson claims that violent media is a “known causal risk factor” for aggressive behaviour (a view supported by the American Psychological Association and the International Society for Research on Aggression). “A normal teenager who has few other risk factors for aggressive behaviour will not turn into a school shooter simply because he or she starts playing a lot of violent video games,” he says. “But, if a lot of other risk factors are present, then adding high exposure to violent screen media adds another causal risk factor.” Other risk factors he cites include social exclusion and growing up in a violent family.

“It is inaccurate to claim that any single risk factor is the cause of violence,” Anderson says.

While video games have therefore been cited as a risk factor for aggression, whether this is a hugely significant link, or in turn can be linked to criminal violence and mass shootings, is still debated. Ferguson firmly takes the “no evidence” line, while Anderson argues that there is insufficient funding to undertake proper studies linking video games to real-world violence. It should be noted that Ferguson’s views are at present more popular in the scientific community, while Anderson’s studies were in the past criticised by the United States Supreme Court during a ruling against a California law that attempted to ban the sales of violent video games to children without parental supervision. It stated: “they do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively” and:

“They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”

Regardless of their differencing perspectives, however, the two scientists seem to agree that video games shouldn’t be Trump’s first concern after the Parkland shooting which saw 14 students and three teachers murdered.   

“If we want to reduce school shootings, make it much more difficult (or impossible) to get rapid-fire guns with large capacity magazines,” says Anderson. When asked about Trump’s statements, Ferguson said: “More cynically, I suppose it’s reasonable to speculate that this may be purposeful, as a distractor to draw the nation away from talking about other issues, particularly gun control.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.
Photo: Getty
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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.
Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”
Photo: Getty
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Margot Robbie saves the ice-skating biopic I, Tonya from sheer sensationalism

Craig Gillespie directs with all the subtlety of a baton-wielding thug but has made one brilliant decision in Margot Robbie, who is a machine for generating empathy.

Knowledge of the figure skater Tonya Harding remains at a rudimentary level in Britain, where she has never quite become the monster, pariah and punchline that she is in the US. Perhaps the story was too far from our cosy Torvill-and-Dean view of skating, or the nuances of the American class system were too dissimilar to our own. Fear not: every last twist, turn and triple axel of the tale is spelled out in the black comedy I, Tonya, which shows how she was implicated in a plot to prevent a fellow skater from competing in the 1994 Winter Olympics. The injured party was Nancy Kerrigan, whose leg was badly bruised by a blow from a telescopic baton. (The assailant was a thug hired by Harding’s ex-husband and her bodyguard.) After the attack, Harding underwent victimisation on a national scale. 

Craig Gillespie directs with all the subtlety of a baton-wielding thug but has made at least one brilliant decision in casting Margot Robbie, who is practically a machine for generating empathy. She projects a convincing sense of wounded injustice as a woman whose skill as a skater was overlooked repeatedly while judges took issue with her “presentation” – in other words, her trashiness. I, Tonya is caught between railing against that sort of snobbery and drawing most of its own dramatic energy from giggling at her torrid, squalid life.

A “mockumentary” framing device, where the characters give interviews straight-to-camera many years later, only multiplies the opportunities for sneering. Now we can hear their excuses while seeing evidence which contradicts them. “Off the ice she was a happy, well-adjusted child,” says Harding’s mother, LaVona (Allison Janney). Cut to the kid trying to shoot a rabbit between the eyes. Like any number of movie tyrants (the music teacher in Whiplash, the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket), LaVona’s toxic energy is prized and despised by the film. It can’t get enough of her chunky specs, ratty furs, the severely pruned haircut that’s too small for her head and the Long John Silver parrot on her shoulder. She’s a graduate from the Mommie Dearest school of parenting: she thrashes her daughter with a hairbrush and kicks her off a chair. The abuse continues into adulthood and on to the ice. Hear that man in the crowd calling out “You suck!”? He’s a plant paid for by LaVona, who claims her daughter skates better when enraged. Don’t say she never does anything for her.

The interviews allow the film to score points off these woebegone souls. “Show me a family that doesn’t have ups and downs,” snorts LaVona immediately after we’ve seen her throw a knife into her daughter’s arm. More effective are the instances of Harding commenting on the abusive behaviour of her low-wattage husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), even as she’s in the midst of receiving his punches. “Mom hit me,” she explains, “and she loves me.” Retaliating during an argument by blasting at him with a shotgun, she tells the camera: “This is bullshit. I never did this.” She’s not the first character to cast aspersions on the veracity of a film as it unfolds – 24 Hour Party People and American Splendor included similar moments – but the trick works here as a distancing device in scenes that might otherwise risk being exploitative.

It’s not a charge the rest of the film can dodge easily. The argument that Harding suffered disproportionately for her crimes, and that a frightened, abused woman essentially was abused all over again in the media, is hard to square with the picture’s sensationalist tone; Robbie’s performance provides the sole rebuttal. There are nifty musical choices – Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” plays during Tonya and Jeff’s first kiss and doesn’t stop once the violence starts. But when LaVona stomps across the rink to the sound of Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman”, it’s both obvious and unoriginal: Gus Van Sant got there first in To Die For, when “Season of the Witch” by Donovan played over another ice-skating scene involving a monstrous woman. If there’s no room in I, Tonya for The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”, that must only be because the soundtrack budget had already been blown on Cliff. 

I, Tonya is in cinemas now. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia